Berlin Airport Fiasco Shows Chinks in German Engineering Armor
Faulty fire protection, lights that won’t go off and an overlooked nuclear reactor are just a few of the hurdles holding up the new airport in Berlin that is tarnishing Germany’s reputation for industrial derring-do.
Designed to befit a capital that attracts more than 10 million visitors every year as Europe’s No. 3 city destination after London and Paris, the airport was built to handle 27 million passengers annually and first scheduled to be operational in 2011. A new date hasn’t been set after construction and planning faults made a June start impossible.
The fiasco reflects the mismanagement creeping into prestige public projects in Germany, taking the sheen off the country’s image as a paragon of engineering proficiency. The setbacks come as Berlin, Germany’s capital since 1990 and its biggest city, shakes off a post-unification malaise and booming tourism spawns new hotels. Low rents compared with other capitals are drawing in software, film and publishing startups.
“It’s not rocket science to build a modern airport,” said Thomas Winkelmann, chief executive officer of Germanwings, Deutsche Lufthansa AG (LHA)’s low-cost airline. “Fashion is better in Italy, food is better in France, and Germans do engineering. So not to be able to construct a single terminal building is super embarrassing.”
The project is being managed by the city of Berlin, the state of Brandenburg and Germany’s federal government. Originally budgeted at about 2.8 billion euros ($3.6 billion), the latest projection is 4.3 billion euros.
Hartmut Mehdorn, the former chief executive officer of Deutsche Bahn AG and Air Berlin Plc (AB1), was named CEO of the airport on March 8, filling a post vacant since January after Rainer Schwarz was fired because of the missteps.
Berlin is building the new airport to attract more tourists and business and cut through the postwar tangle of several aerodromes, Tegel in the western part of the city and Schoenefeld in the east. While Tegel has been popular with travelers for its short distances from street drop-off to departure gate, the facilities don’t offer enough space to expand into the global gateway Berlin is aspiring to become.
“Berlin needs an airport, and that’s why we have to do everything so that this airport is completed as quickly as possible,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on March 8.
London’s Heathrow is Europe’s busiest airport, attracting 69.9 million passengers last year. Paris’s Charles de Gaulle drew 61.6 million passengers, while third-ranked Frankfurt had 57.5 million.
Some of Germany’s biggest companies including Siemens AG (SIE) and Robert Bosch GmbH are involved in the Berlin airport project. Carriers including Air Berlin and Lufthansa have built new facilities there and are in talks over how to recoup losses incurred by the delays. Air Berlin plans to use the site as its hub and Lufthansa, Europe’s second-biggest airline, had planned to operate more than 1,000 weekly flights there.
The list of calamities at the 280,000 square-meter (3 million square-foot) terminal, located in the state of Brandenburg about 20 kilometers (12 miles) southeast of downtown Berlin, is growing. At last count, at least 20,000 defects ranged from the faulty fire protection systems to incorrectly laid tiles, according to reports in German media.
A Feb. 13 visit revealed a site devoid not only of passengers and planes, but also of workers as project directors continue to compile a catalog of what needs to be fixed before work can resume. The building is lit up every night because there’s no mechanism to turn the lights off. There are deficits in the sprinkler system and a lack of fire protection on some steel girders used for construction.
The project is not the only blemish on Germany’s engineering prowess. A plan to put Stuttgart’s train station underground has met environmentalist opposition and is now budgeted to cost 6.5 billion euros, compared with 4.5 billion euros in the initial plan. A harbor concert hall in Hamburg, Germany’s richest city, may end up costing more than 10 times the original estimate of 77 million euros and is also years behind its 2010 completion date.
“I would love it if Berlin had the international airport it deserves as the capital,” actor Matt Damon told reporters at the Berlinale Film Festival, where he was promoting his film “Promised Land” on Feb. 8.
‘Poor But Sexy’
Critics of the Berlin chaos have put the blame on politicians meddling in the complexities of a large-scale infrastructure project. Matthias Platzeck, the prime minister of the state of Brandenburg who became airport supervisory board chairman on Jan. 16, took over the job from Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, who has marketed Berlin as the city equivalent of a startup under the slogan of “poor but sexy.”
Berlin is the second-most indebted of Germany’s 16 states, with more than 60 billion euros of debt, according to data from the Federal Statistics Office.
“It shows that big German city governments are incapable of running the infrastructure show,” said Friedrich Thelen, founder of Thelen-Consult, a Berlin-based business advisory group and former parliamentary editor of business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. “Major projects must be run by private professionals.”
Germany’s federal structure has spawned a network of global and smaller airports throughout the country. Frankfurt remains by far the largest, followed by Munich, built in the early 1990s. Berlin, which was divided until 1990, never gained the same global status as other German cities, with years of only one regular intercontinental connection -- servicing the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator.
At the new site, the smoke ventilating equipment installed throughout the glass-sheathed structure is faulty even after lessons learned from Germany’s worst airport disaster -- a 1996 fire at Dusseldorf airport which killed 17 people. These present the biggest safety risk, according to a Jan. 25 report to Parliament’s Budget Committee.
Planners also failed to consider that authorities might balk at an experimental nuclear reactor located under a planned flight path. The reactor in Berlin’s southwest Wannsee district is operated by the Helmholtz Zentrum, a materials and energy research institute. The Wannsee route was declared illegal by an administrative appeals court in a Jan. 23 ruling.
“The risk of a plane crash and an aviation terrorist attack and the release of ionized radiation from the research reactor was insufficiently considered,” the court said in a statement issued with the ruling, in which it scolded airport planners for failing to recognize and evaluate the risks.
“The problems are severe, very severe,” Horst Amann, the chief airport operating officer who was installed last year after his predecessor was fired, said in a Jan. 8 interview with broadcaster Hessischer Rundfunk.
To be sure, other German airport projects have been completed on time. Fraport AG expanded Frankfurt Airport’s Terminal 1 in October after four years of construction, adding capacity for the biggest passenger planes, including Airbus’s A380 and Boeing’s 747, for as many as 6 million passengers at a cost of 700 million euros.
And one thing that does work at the new airport is its low- tech environmental monitoring system.
Cabbages have been planted in plots around the runways to help monitor the air quality since 2011, according to Jan. 28 report by the airport. The cabbages are harvested and analyzed in a laboratory for hazardous substances, the report says. Honey produced in beehives at the airport is also analyzed.
“Building an airport is a complex thing that needs a massive amount of teamwork, an open and integrated relationship with the supply chain,” said Paul Griffiths, the CEO of Dubai Airports. “To get the program back on track, get some realism into the schedule, get people who know what they’re doing and start testing. And don’t announce a date until you’re absolutely confident everything is working.”
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